British autumns from your childhood, eh? You’ve got the thrill of going back to school, (I enjoyed kit lists and new stationary and all that jazz); you’ve got harvest festivals, (some great primary school classics such as ‘Autumn leaves when the grass is jewelled’ and ‘Cauliflowers fluffy and cabbages green’); then there’s Halloween and Bonfire Night; and then church parade and Remembrance Day. All well and good.
This year we are in Yokohama and the school term starts in April, not September; the school’s focus was undokai (sports festival), not harvest festival; yes, there’s been Halloween celebrations but no trick or treating and it’s warm and sunny not cold and rainy, and as far as autumn landmarks go, that’s it now. No Bonfire Night, (obviously) and no Remembrance Day.
But, as I recalled, Japan was an ally in World War One so why isn’t there a similar event here? Well, the losses Japan sustained were a tiny fraction of those of the British and Commonwealth forces – I think less than one hundred were killed, mostly in the Mediterranean, and it is hardly mentioned in the Japanese history books. Conversely, British society was torn asunder by the loss of young men: men who never returned or if they did, were often affected by physical or mental wounds. It scarred the British psyche.
Of course, the second world war scarred the country again – and the civilian population sustained losses in the blitz and u boat campaigns. Children born after 1945 were often fascinated by the impact of the war on their families and country. Their children are my generation who now have children of our own.
Thankfully my knowledge of war is scant. I remember the first months of the first Iraq war whilst I was basking on a school bench in Kenilworth, one sunny September lunchtime. Then, the start of the second Iraq war coincided with me taking on a job at County archive. However, as a Guide, I would dutifully and patriotically take part in Remembrance Day Parade. Later, as part of a Scout marching band we would lead the march through small town in the New Forest. I even attended one or two wreath laying events at university: for the first time attending in civvies. As a young adult I would happily buy a poppy. Pin it to a coat. Then lose that poppy, and go and buy another. Then more recently, I would buy a poppy or two but I would perhaps be wearing my Goretex jacket (as by this point I was living in rainy Cumbria, land of Goretex), or it might be a dry day and I might be wearing my new Rab feather jacket and not want to get a hole in it, and that act of buying a poppy becomes an imposition. I still buy the poppy but it languishes beside my bed. They are just bloody impractical for November weather in Cumbria.
Why am I obsessing about the wearing of a poppy? Tommy Robinson. I saw him on telly, a good week or two ago, stood outside a court in his smart suit and pristine poppy and it reminded me of all the news/media folk you see on the telly at this time of year, all with their pristine poppies which are OBVIOUSLY newly pinned by some runner whose job it is from mid-October onwards to have a ready supply of poppies (and pins) to hand. Because heaven forfend that you are seen without one. A nod to the mores but not necessarily sincere.
I do often think about the soldiers’ sacrifice, and griping about the impracticality of wearing a poppy for a week or so does seem so bloody petulant, but I’m fed up with the guilt. The guilt of feeling like you have to prove to people that you HAVE bought a poppy (usually several). The guilt that you haven’t had to see your generation sacrificed for some greater cause, and now the guilt that this sort of unhealthy and impractical relationship to the fallen can be commandeered by right wingers.
Having lived in a country that has had to redefine itself after 1945 I find it refreshing to know that national esteem doesn’t have to be linked to military victories. I’ve decided that the next time I am in the UK in October/ November I am going to make a donation to the Royal British Legion and then buy some temporary poppy tattoos online and stick them on my face. Yes, it’s unconventional, but that’s me.
Above is a list of allied servicemen who gave their lives in the First World War. It’s in the Yokohama Foreign Cemetery. I’m plan to find out more about it. Watch this space.